The professor who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Georgianne Thomas
Author, adjunct professor, Clark Atlanta University
I came to Atlanta from Gary, Indiana, to attend Spelman College in 1960. I really didn’t have a choice because my mother had gone to Spelman and my father had gone to Morehouse College. All of my friends were going to Ball State or Indiana University. I went to Froebel High School, which was a mixed school. I lived in a mixed neighborhood. I’d never known anything but being in a neighborhood with white and black people. I thought I was free.
My mother said, “Don’t worry. When you get off the train, somebody will be there to meet you.” But there wasn’t anybody there to meet me. There were two waiting rooms. The one marked “colored” didn’t look good, so I headed to the “white” one—which looked like the one I’d just left in Chicago. Someone called out, “You can’t go in there.” It was the woman Spelman had sent to meet me. That was my first encounter with racism.
It was an awakening for me. But it was the best thing that happened to me, so I could find out I was a black woman, that I was not free, that I didn’t have rights like I thought I had. I had grown up in a household where my stepfather and mother sheltered us from anything segregated.
When I arrived in Atlanta, I was so happy. It was green all the time; I had never seen so much green. When you grow up in the north, there’s snow and cold, and here, it was warm. I saw grass—lots of it. I thought I lived a pretty good life: middle class, my folks did well, my mother owned a business. But I did not know that we didn’t have Southern money. It’s a different kind of money in the South. Spelman was beautiful. And we had all these schools right here. Morehouse was across the street; Clark was on the other side. Morris Brown was up the street. It was the camaraderie I loved.
Herschelle Sullivan [now Dr. Challenor] was the senior class president at Spelman, and she had just returned from Paris. She spoke to us and said, We’ve got to do something about segregation. She and Roslyn Pope [now Dr. Pope] and Lonnie King were 21 and 20, so they were older. They told us teenagers that we needed to march. They called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama and asked him to come to Atlanta.
We were smart. We were women. No one could tell us what to do. On October 19, 1960, the largest coordinated series of civil rights protests in Atlanta’s history took place. Students from the six Atlanta University Center institutions gathered at the bottom of a hill near where the Mercedes-Benz Stadium is today. The student leaders told us that if we wanted to change our mind about the planned picketing and sit-ins at stores and restaurants in downtown Atlanta, now was the time to do so, because once we started up the hill, there was no turning back. When I walked up the hill for the first time, I was in shock. The Ku Klux Klan was lined up waiting for us. I thought, Georgianne, what the heck is going to happen to you? But there was no turning back, even when a man put his cigarette out on my arm as I was marching in front of Rich’s, I had to keep walking and holding my sign. We were trained to keep moving silently. It was the first time that Dr. King was arrested in Atlanta.
My mom had a fit. If I’d gotten arrested, it would’ve killed her. I couldn’t do that to her. We had two groups: one for students willing to get arrested, another for those who were not. I never got arrested.
I dated a young man who was from Atlanta, and my friends in college were Atlantans. I wanted to be like them. They were very well off, very polished. They had brick houses, driveways, swimming pools, yards for days. Collier Heights made Ebony magazine. People couldn’t believe black people had such beautiful homes. When I was a little girl, I thought black people were poor in the South. We were always collecting money in church to send down South.
I bought the best clothes and shopped at Regenstein’s, Thompson Boland-Lee, and Rich’s. But the salespeople would throw the change back. They never put the money in your hand. After integration in Atlanta, my husband and I made it a point of going to every restaurant we ever wanted to go to. I was still fascinated with Atlanta.
But the Atlanta people won’t let you call yourself an Atlantan. If you say, “I’m an Atlantan,” you’d better make sure there’s not an Atlanta-born person in your midst or they will set you straight—my daughter included. I still proudly claim the place of my birth, Gary, Indiana, but when I’m traveling, I say I’m from Atlanta. This city has been my home since 1960. I am thankful for the gifts she has given me. I pray I have honored those gifts through my love and service for and to her people.